S. or Ship of Theseus is an intensely satisfying reading experience for those who enjoy metafiction and experimental literature. It is a time-consuming but deliciously tactile journey that lends the same surge of intrigue as unfolding a handwritten note that falls out of somewhere unexpected. You don’t know what it contains, or who wrote it, but as you read, you see the traces of the writer–an employer, a friend, a lover, a parent, whomever–writing from a specific place in time, to a specific recipient. And you feel that forbidden drive to read… because of the fact that those words that weren’t meant for you. Combine that feeling with an actual entire literary novel-within-a-novel that is, in itself, spooky, stirring, and Hemingway-esque. And, as garnish, you feel the unique pull of an academic obsession that multiplies as commonality and connection reaches two people who find that their obsession is shared.
This is not a normal book. It is an amalgamation of multi-colored annotations, footnotes, letters, postcards, newspapers, cards, and drawings that exist because of the book. It takes patience. All of it is an absolutely staggering invention. Hats off to Doug Dorst (writer) and J.J. Abrams (concept/story) on this unique tribute to the love of literature.
Sarah Moss writes beautifully–and with a keen sense of danger–in this novella. The evocative imagery spun for Ghost Wall‘s Northumbrian setting pulls heavily, just like the thick of a bog. It’s an uncomfortable but resplendent story that presents a vulnerable type of hero we rarely see: someone who is young and extremely capable, but also extremely helpless to use that capability to save herself. In many ways, a story of constraint runs parallel to one of awakening, and that’s mirrored in a really lovely way as Moss describes how bodies look and feel, long for and resist. More than anything, this fierce little book asks us who our ghosts become, and whether they function as hungry entities to appease or as shadowy warning cries that we only hear when we most need to. Also: a reminder to notice and act when we need to protect someone who can’t protect themselves.
This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.
Lincoln in the Bardo is simply a brilliant work of art. George Saunders takes the historical truth of President Lincoln’s grief over his dead son, and imagines it into a bizarre and stunning meditation on the unseen tension between the living and the dead. The story’s mouthpiece is not one, but rather a cacophony of restless ghosts–a structural risk that pays off admirably for Saunders, creating something as weird and gorgeous as it is indelible. The novel romps, slinks, and keens through the liminal space of haunting, exploring the uncertainties of identity that characterize our uneasy relationship with mortality. This book is remarkable.
I would actually rate Only Revolutions as “impossible to rate.” I’ve had this book on my shelf for a decade and I decided that it was finally time to take on this beast, a dual-perspectived love story written like beat poetry and spanning centuries. It is an incredible feat of experimental literature–you have never read anything like it. I enjoyed analyzing Danielewski’s craft acrobatics. This book doesn’t care what year it is or what you expect from it. It is difficult and bizarre. For me, the heart of the story lay in Sam’s final pages. Much of it I wasn’t sure what to do with. The mood of this novel is America, and it celebrates the fear, unconquerable joy, and surging energy of youth. My favorite part of this reading experience, though, was leaving the book at a Little Free Library deep in the remote Minnesota north woods. Someone is going to find this, read it, and be like “what the hell”? 😀
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is an atmospheric, consuming thriller. The narrator’s perspective, mostly staying at age 14, also hovers down to childhood and sweeps back up to 20- and then 30-something, all while focusing on patterns that resonate with the crucial summer of her adolescence. Fridlund gives us a narrator that we believe but don’t trust, who sometimes seems as feral and predatory as the wolves that captivate her. At the same time, she also remains fragile and sympathetic as we watch her try to understand loneliness, desire, and jealousy within her wild but limited world. History of Wolves traverses uncomfortable psychological territory while staying tender, and tugs with a mature force of suspense that made me tear through the book in a few days. Dark need pulls the reader into this shadowy, disconcerting debut novel like a rip current.
The Sport of Kings was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017, and it has a horse on the cover. These two things compelled me to purchase and read it immediately. However, I had no idea what I was in for. This novel is simply torrential. After finishing the last page, I sat there stupefied on my couch and then sobbed for a full twenty minutes. The story is layered with generations of shame, filled with imprisonment both physical and mental, and a study in the exploitation that comes with corrupted understandings of parenthood, race, gender, nature, and self. The story is terrible and gorgeous as a tyrant. I am in absolute awe of C. E. Morgan, even though her indelible writing obliterated my heart.
This review is inadequate, but luckily Jaimy Gordon wrote a far better one for The New York Times for your consideration.